Envisioning an urban research lab at the old Lagos Printing Press

Build in 1896, the former Colonial Printing Press on Broad Street, Lagos Island, is located in the heart of the former political and economic centre of Lagos. As the main institution responsible for the publication and propagation of official publications and laws, it played an eminent political role both during colonial and post-independence times. It is not by chance that it was located directly next to the Colonial Secretariat, the seat of the Colonial Governor, and to the Colonial Prison, both strongholds of the colonial power.

The transformation of the Colonial Prison into what became the first public park in Lagos, Freedom Park, can be seen as a landmark process for urban development in Lagos in the way that it demonstrated that derelict public spaces could be re-designed for cultural and social use. It created the precedence and became the initiator for the social change taking place in the south-eastern parts of Lagos Island.

In only three years Freedom Park has become a place of choice for cultural events and gatherings ranging from art festivals to live concerts and exhibitions and public meetings. While the building of the printing press still belongs to the federal government, the whole complex offers a huge potential for cultural and interdisciplinary uses, with a centenary, main two-storey building that is still in very good condition; it has a ground hall of approximately 450 sqm, with the first floor (of same surface) divided into smaller offices with wooden partitioning walls.

Goethe-Institut Workshop

With the intention of developing a Culture Hub and Urban Research Lab at the Federal Government Press that would play a similar if not bigger role for the arts sector than Freedom Park, a two-day workshop and one day public lecture was organised by the Goethe Institut. A major component of the Centre envisaged is a Urban Research Lab that would question arts in public space from a multitude of thematic approaches: environmental and sociological issues, architectural issues, transportation and mobile solutions, technological issues, urban planning, role of the media, and many more. Such a lab is thus thought of as a think tank on questions concerning the interaction between art and urban development.

Over two days of intense discussions and debates, 40 national and international experts and artists from different backgrounds gathered to exchange on their respective experiences as far as accessible art spaces and urban research think tanks are concerned. Indeed, artists, urban planners and interested activists based in Lagos, London, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Berlin, Singapore, and Weimar participated in these debates. The participants came from public and private research institutions, architecture cabinets, cultural associations and organizations, cooperation and development agencies as well as foundations.

The participants worked in focused groups around three main issues:

  • ​The structural question: what kind of structure should be aimed at, what will the ownership look like, what can funding options exist?
  • The social context: how can the neighbourhood be included and benefit from the Centre?
  • The interdisciplinary approach: how can artists, architects, urban planners, scientists, cultural activists work together in a common space?

Concluding remarks

The Printing Press Project has been developed out of a series of discussions over two years, with artists and urban planners and interested activists. They saw the lack of affordable and accessible arts spaces that could act as catalyser for new interdisciplinary artistic approaches. The Printing Press building offers a unique chance to respond to this demand. By offering a combination of exhibition/performance space, studio and arts residency space, training and resource spaces, archive space and educational/research space it could position itself as a major cultural initiative in Nigeria with potentially strong impact on the future development of the cultural scene in the country and the sub region.

The workshop did reaffirm the interests and commitments of many crucial partners, with the diversity of participants and the serious commitment as well as engagement they expressed towards facilitating the conceptualisation and implementation of this project. However, the workshop also emphasised the fact that the initiative still remains at its beginnings because pragmatic developments are still waiting to move it to its next stage. In this sense, and while I was responsible for drawing some concluding remarks for the workshop and public lecture, several outcomes but also challenges deserve attention.

Outcomes

  • On the Who? The workshop acted as a reminder of the pivotal role cultural, creative and artistic professionals have played on the continent in advancing an informed agenda for their field of practice. These communities of practitioners are diverse and multiple, with very different profiles capable of enriching the development and promotion of their sector from a considerable range of experiences and expertise, from North-South to South-South collaborations among local, regional and international partners
  • On the How? The workshop emphasised the importance of discussing any project that deemed to become a ‘common’ and the crucial significance of establishing networks and partnerships across different sectors of expertise (Ford Foundation, Goethe Institut, British Council, practitioners, academic scholars, artists, managers, researchers, activists) in order to connect knowledge that is too often developed and entertained in silos. Such an interactive engagement remains indeed an essential step for the Centre to become an epicentre of cultural and creative discussions and interventions. In this sense, the workshop provided an excellent ground to nurture such a reflection and commonly develop a baseline document that can act as ‘food’ for future thought and further development of the initiative
  • On the Why? This event also reaffirmed the importance of developing a common vision, of which development is then ensured through certain ethics and effective leadership. This was in fact clearly expressed in the repeatedly suggested creation of a Manifesto that would bind and bond the participants in, and partners of, the project. There is a ‘public’ dimension in this initiative, one that implies the promotion of a public good that is culture and creativity in the urban space of Lagos, and one that has been informed by the sharing of other collective initiatives, few individuals and entities (such as ZKU, RUan Grupa or VAN) who hustle for the public good, and thus contribute in inspiring and making social transformation happen
  • On the What? The discussions were a reminder that the project provided a unique opportunity to re-imagine and re-imprint the social fabric of Lagos, through the development of a safe cultural space to create, collaborate, meet and share knowledge and practice, while making things visible. As such, it has been envisaged as a home to a living archive, an information and communication platform, a place where discussions and collaborations can emerge, i.e. a site where alternative knowledge and practice can be found as well as produced

 Challenges

  • On the How? The workshop however raised the issue of time and of having a timescale in mind as far as the development of the project is concerned. In this sense, it is important to actually take the time to think and also try pragmatically things, from a convivial and qualitative perspective, with incremental changes all the way (for e.g. starting with a temporary public exhibition on the building to attract the interest of passers-by’). Such a project indeed requires a step-by-step process to be staged if the objective is to create an engaged and committed collective of individuals beyond the building, its bricks and walls. The issue of time is here crucial to ensure an organic and on-going inclusive engagement of key stakeholders, and thus establish a genuine connective tissue over the lifetime span of the project
  • On the Why? The ultimate objective of establishing a productive creative and cultural ‘common’ necessarily calls for clear orientations as well as a shared and mutual understanding that has to be reflected in a multi-layered and holistic approach. Considering the multiplicity of profiles and the diversity of functions to be convened and curated in this project, an insightful direction for the latter would have to be developed in order to ensure a space that is both flexible and mobile to accommodate its different priorities through time. Similarly, the community of participants would need to be not only vibrant and dynamic, but also capable of adjusting, adapting and stretching its agenda in an innovative and constantly reflective manner to ensure the relevance and sustainability of both its programmatic as well as financial organisation
  • What? An obvious challenge remains in terms of reconciling the various dimensions of culture and creativity in urban space as envisaged by the project. Indeed, the interdisciplinary focus for a site dedicated to both amateurs and professionals interested in cultural and artistic production as well as consumption calls for an appreciation and valorisation of the multi-facet dynamics part of the urban creative fabric. This implies articulating the multiplicity of profiles, roles and virtues of the field for an inclusive city, from the cultural and creative economy, to the arts and heritage dimensions, and an informed understanding of the cultural context as a condition for any project of sustainable development
  • Who? While it has been clearly reminded at the beginning of the workshop that the building is currently neither abandoned nor efficiently used, the question of its current usage remained one under-explored during the workshop. In fact, there may have been some missing partners and voices in the discussions, which would however play a key part in the sustainable ecosystem of the Centre: these are the people from the community surrounding it, the living residents of the neighbourhood, the informal current users (squatters) of the building. There are indeed at least three publics to be attended to in the multi-layered project – 1) artists/creative professionals/researchers; 2) neighbourhood people; and 3) current users – with the latter two not represented during the workshop. In this sense, there is still a need for a mapping process of the different networks and connections of people, whose paths cross the building, of these ordinary residents and citizens evolving around and potentially involved in the Project’s fabric

In conclusion, the Printing Press project represents a very interesting and stimulating project, which has led to insightful discussions, and culminated with genuinely engaging exchanges of perspectives and experiences in the October workshop. It now needs to move forward in practical terms, supported by the initial and crucial role played by the Goethe Institut so far, but necessarily led by dedicated and committed citizens of Lagos. Alike Africulturban in Dakar or the GoDown Centre in Nairobi, and however essential ‘external’ support is, it remains the responsibility of active creative people, from their own means and capabilities, to make this Culture Hub and Urban Research Lab happen.

 

Jenny F. Mbaye is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the African Centre for Cities (ACC) of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Her research interests include urban creativity, cultural development and entrepreneurship, cultural labour and creative work, practice and policy of cultural production in Africa, especially in the Francophone West African fields of urban music.

Image via Goethe-Institut Lagos.

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